"Rural Scotland: A New Approach"

Race Relations – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:19 am on 25th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 10:19 am, 25th May 2000

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-896, in the name of Ross Finnie, on "Rural Scotland: A New Approach", and two amendments to that motion. I call Ross Finnie to speak to and move his motion.

I ask all those who would like to take part in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now, so that we can organise the list of speakers.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 10:28 am, 25th May 2000

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate, so that the Parliament can demonstrate the importance of rural Scotland to Scotland as a whole and so that I may highlight what the Executive is doing to give rural issues the priority that they deserve.

It is a year since we gave a commitment in "Partnership for Scotland" to

"work to support and enhance rural life, rural communities and the rural economy."

That was a serious promise and one that we are working to deliver. At the outset, we began by creating a rural affairs department and a Minister for Rural Affairs. We recognised that, for our commitment to be achieved, we needed to move from the traditional departmental approach to policy making to a more cross-cutting style of government. That is why we established the ministerial committee on rural development, which includes ministers from across all the Executive's policy fields.

Although it is still early days, I believe that we have started to address the issues that matter to rural Scots, and to ensure that rural issues feature much more prominently on policy agendas right across the Executive.

On Monday, I published "Rural Scotland: A New Approach" to highlight how the Executive is taking a different approach with the aim of delivering a better future for rural Scotland. We are determined to move away from the predominantly urban view of rural Scotland as being about pretty places that have problems and are in decline. Although rural Scotland faces many challenges such as the difficulties in the agriculture industry—there is no question about that—it also has a great many assets that should be developed and valued.

Our approach is based on a recognition that rural Scotland covers about 89 per cent of our landmass and comprises about 30 per cent of our population and is therefore an important and integral part of the whole of Scotland. We want to value rural Scotland, and see its distinctiveness as an asset. Furthermore, we want to ensure that our policies and activities meet the needs and aspirations of rural people. In short, we in the Scottish Executive want to put rural Scotland at the heart of Scotland's future.

"Rural Scotland: A New Approach" is very much about looking to the future, which is not to say that there is no need to deal with short-term issues as they arise. However, we are determined to move beyond that and provide a framework for a longer-term direction.

I believe that we cannot take this longer-term view without having a vision for the kind of rural Scotland that we are aspiring to achieve. That is why we have set out at the start of the document a broad schematic of how to develop such a vision. The vision will underpin the development of policies and priorities that meet the needs of rural Scotland, and are designed to suit rural circumstances.

We hope that the vision that we have set out in the document will be shared by everyone who cares about rural Scotland, particularly those living and working in our rural areas. As the document makes clear, we want to create a rural Scotland that is

"integral to Scotland's success, dynamic in harnessing its traditional strengths, and with an appetite for change".

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

I will conclude the vision, and then I will give way.

Secondly, we want a rural Scotland that provides

"opportunity for our young people-so they don't have to leave to get on".

Thirdly, a rural Scotland should offer

"a high quality of life to all its citizens, with access to services".

Finally, we want a rural Scotland that sustains and makes

"the most of its natural and cultural heritage".

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am sure that we all subscribe to the general aims and principles that the minister has set out as demonstrably desirable. Does he accept that the greatest threat to Scotland's rural economy is the fact that we have the highest fuel costs and fuel tax in the world? Will he support or oppose the Liberal Democrat policy, announced by Charles Kennedy on 16 March, to increase fuel tax by 5p a litre?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

It is always rather disappointing that the—[MEMBERS: "Oh."] No, it is always disappointing when, at the point in any speech in this chamber where we try to acknowledge difficulties but also to give some vision for the way forward, other members say that they do not want visions and want only to discuss specific problems. At the start of my speech, I acknowledged that there are very serious difficulties in rural Scotland, of which transport costs are one. However, in this debate I am trying to set out a vision and a framework to find solutions to issues across the rural agenda. I am aware that our vision is ambitious, and cannot easily be delivered by the Executive alone.

We have to work in partnership with those in rural Scotland. The Executive must have a vision of where it is going so that it can prioritise its policies in a sensible way. We must bear in mind chiefly that rural Scotland is diverse. A solution that suits Caithness and Sutherland might not suit the needs in Wigtown. As a result, it is difficult to apply some policies across rural areas as a whole. We have to adopt a new approach and work with others to find ways of examining the issue and develop solutions that are appropriate for each rural area.

"Rural Scotland: A New Approach" demonstrates how we have started—only started—to pull together what the Executive is doing to measure up to the aims that we have set. That process has enabled us to take stock and assess where we are already delivering policies as well as identifying some failures and gaps in policy development.

The document focuses on the Executive's activities through some of the examples of good practice that exist. We should not run down rural Scotland: there are examples of good practice throughout rural Scotland and one of the jobs of the Executive is to disseminate that information across Scotland to ensure that communities benefit from things that are happening elsewhere.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The minister said that we should not run down rural Scotland. However, in Tuesday's Daily Mail , he is quoted as saying that it is not his job to "prop up dying communities". Why did he say that? What is his definition of a dying community?

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

Dear, dear, dear. I wish that Richard Lochhead would read the Daily Mail more often. If he did, he would know that that was a misquote from an address that I gave to the rural branch of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors at least 12 weeks ago.

Anyone who was present at that meeting will be able to tell Richard Lochhead that the thrust of my remarks was to express support for rural communities. What was taken out of context was a criticism that I made of the way in which the announcement of the new crofting community was handled in the press, which treated it as yet another example of rural Scotland's being a subsidy junkie. I remarked that there was more to the exercise than propping up communities and that we wanted to develop their strengths.

I regret that my remark was taken out of context. I have talked to the Daily Mail about that but, as Richard Lochhead will know, the press is not particularly interested in things like that. My remark does not detract from my commitment to rural Scotland.

The document acknowledges that there are two specific areas on which we have to do some work. The first relates to the provision of public and private services in rural areas. As many members who represent rural areas will be aware, the availability of services locally is often a key indicator of the health and well-being of rural communities. The closure of a bank, a shop or a post office can often be seen as a major threat to that community's future. However, service providers often find that commercial pressures make it difficult for them to continue to provide a service.

I recognise that this is a tricky issue with no single or easy solution. However, we have seen examples of a different kind of development. The Executive can play a role in bringing communities and service providers together to explore innovative and imaginative ways of providing services in rural areas. To that end, we are collaborating with the Scottish national rural partnership to examine innovative ways of delivering services in rural areas and to find out if there are perceived or real barriers that prevent such innovation occurring elsewhere. We want to learn lessons from examples and build on those experiences.

I have asked the bodies which make up the Scottish national rural partnership—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the enterprise bodies, Scottish Homes, Scottish Natural Heritage and the voluntary sector, amongst others—to oversee this work and report back to ministers by the end of November.

The other key issue is rural poverty, which is not understood well outside the rural communities. I am conscious that we need to develop a better understanding of its characteristics, to ensure that the policy instruments and actions aimed at tackling poverty are suited to rural areas and are having the intended effect, and to determine whether further action is needed.

Some useful work has been carried out recently to improve our understanding of rural poverty and disadvantage. However, it is not enough. We therefore propose to establish a small group to undertake that work, the membership of which will be announced shortly. It will include representatives from local authorities, enterprise bodies and the local communities, who have direct experience of rural poverty. Our aim is to push rural poverty higher up the agenda, as the statistics that are available are woefully inadequate and are impeding the implementation of crucial policies in our rural communities.

Those are just two examples of how our new approach is leading us to recognise where we need to work with others and build on existing expertise to ensure that we fully understand the problems that face rural Scotland and the way in which they can best be tackled. The publication of "Rural Scotland: A New Approach" is intended as the beginning of that process; by no means is it intended as the last word. To make a lasting difference to the lives of people in rural areas, we need ideas, commitment and a willingness to change.

The Executive can take the lead, but the process will require the commitment of others. I look forward to working with colleagues throughout the Parliament in advancing this new approach, building on the strengths of our rural communities and recognising their potential as we develop a rural agenda that is positive and proactive, rather than negative and reactive.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication by the Scottish Executive of the document Rural Scotland: A New Approach; notes the progress which the Executive has already made in placing rural Scots in the mainstream of its policies and activities, and endorses the vision for rural Scotland presented in the document and the approach which will be taken, working together with others, to put and keep rural Scotland at the heart of Scotland's future.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 10:41 am, 25th May 2000

I welcome the principle of publishing a document that deals with Scotland's rural communities. Not before time, rural Scotland is receiving more focused attention than it has received in the past. All members welcome the setting up of a rural affairs department as a first step towards co-ordinating Government action for rural Scotland.

However, all members would recognise—and this is acknowledged in the document—that the setting up of the rural affairs department will not in itself address the many problems that rural Scotland faces or exploit the many opportunities that exist in those areas. The overwhelming bulk of the department's budget is allocated to traditional agriculture and fishery, and a large proportion of that money is totally controlled by European Union regulations, with no scope for ministerial involvement.

We live in an age in which presentation is all, or at least considerably more important than substance. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the various documents, white papers and green papers that have been issued by this Government and the one at Westminster over the past few years. Those booklets are intended to grace our coffee tables; they are triumphs of the designer's art. It requires a degree of concentration to discover that the quality and substance of their content does not always match the quality of their presentation.

If we open the document that the minister has introduced—and I realise that that is not the intended purpose of books on coffee tables—I think that we will be disappointed that the contents of today's offering do not live up to the promise of its title and introduction. It is clear that the brief that was issued to the civil servants who prepared the document was to scour rural Scotland to find out everything that is being done, or has been done, by every organ of government, quango and group that receives any money from the Government, to write down all the good bits—noting a few particularly attractive success stories, to be highlighted with illustrations—and to put the resulting mishmash in an attractive folder called "Rural Scotland: A New Approach". I am slightly puzzled as to why a document, much of which is about what has already been done or announced, merits the title "A New Approach".

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

Will Mr Morgan accept that the whole point of the new approach and what has been lacking in the past is an integrated, holistic approach to policy in rural Scotland?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I agree, but I do not think that these 70 pages give us that. That is the problem.

One small example of how to present a situation to its best advantage can be seen on page 40 where, in a paragraph on water services, we learn that £1,800 million will be invested over the next three years, which will

"improve drinking water standards . . . particularly in the Highlands and Islands."

Good as far as it goes, but an element of balance, a slight counterpoint to the euphoria, might have been introduced by mentioning that water charges in the north of Scotland have gone up by 111 per cent since the general election.

Even leaving aside the glossy presentation, assembling a series of disparate facts in one document is not in itself evidence of a co-ordinated approach. Ministers will need to offer more than this document to convince us that that is the case.

The Executive's ability to co-ordinate policy on rural areas is severely hampered by only being able to operate within the context and powers of the devolved Parliament. The economy and other aspects of rural life are influenced by decisions taken at Westminster as well as by the decisions of the Executive. It is difficult to see how, even with the Executive's best intentions, we can achieve the necessary co-ordination with the Government at Westminster, especially when the Chancellor of the Exchequer's economic policy is not influenced by sectoral considerations, whether of manufacturing, agricultural industry or the wider rural economy.

In the document the Executive says:

"The Executive will work with the UK Government to ensure that the distinctive needs of rural Scotland are reflected in decisions on motoring fuel taxation and other reserved matters."

I would be interested to hear how much success the Executive thinks it has had on that. I make no apology for mentioning fuel costs again because, in the rural affairs meetings we have had over the past month or so throughout Scotland, that is the biggest single topic raised by people at every single meeting.

As a result of the on-going legacy of the previous Government, about which we are supposed to have developed amnesia, exacerbated by the first three years in office of the current Labour Government, the price of fuel in rural Scotland, as has been said many times in this Parliament and again this morning, is among the highest in Europe.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I would like to take the opportunity to put the record straight after Fergus Ewing's intervention. The Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster voted against those rises, whether imposed by Labour or Conservative Administrations. The SLD policy in Scotland is to differentiate urban from rural taxation for transport.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I can understand that Mr Rumbles is anxious to cover up the splits between the Liberal Democrat party here and at Westminster.

We are meant, apparently, to be obsequiously grateful that the chancellor, in his most recent budget, only put up fuel duty by the rate of inflation. If something is already far too expensive, putting it up by the rate of inflation means that it remains far too expensive. That would even be the case if the chancellor had used the real rate of inflation instead of the higher measure he used when he increased duty.

The document also mentions the laudable aim of switching freight from road to rail. Here again the Government is over-egging the custard.

"Freight facilities grants are enabling the removal of various significant freight flows from rural roads."

Due to the lack of railways. it would be a distinctively imaginative scheme that would shift freight from road to rail in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, or in the Borders or many other parts of rural Scotland. There is also a reference to an increase in road maintenance budgets. That is essential, given the backlog of neglect, but it is no substitute for major investment in new roads.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

Would Mr Morgan accept that there has been a considerable movement of freight from road to rail in the northern Highlands and that that is a success story for the Executive?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

As I said before, it would be difficult in 70 pages not to get something right. I quite gladly acknowledge that.

The document highlights, quite rightly, the potential importance of information and communications technology for rural industry. That is an area in which, particularly for small businesses, rural areas can compete on a level playing field with their urban counterparts. It also acknowledges that we need to develop, maintain and continue to improve the infrastructure so that rural areas can keep up.

Several members have asked over the past few months just precisely what the Government will do to ensure that rural telecommunications infrastructure continues to improve. The Minister for Finance, in response to a recent oral question, seemed to indicate that it was up to the telecoms companies to provide that infrastructure. There is no legislative imperative for them to do so. They are under no legal obligation to act as a common carrier everywhere in Scotland. Although the Administration can quite happily point to previous partnerships, notably with British Telecommunications in the Highlands, there is no indication of how continuous improvements in infrastructure will be achieved.

Let me use a constituency point to illustrate the problems of co-ordinating between departments. I refer to one of the good-news illustrations—sorry, the case studies—in the document: the Scottish national book town in Wigtown, which is having its third book town fair this coming Saturday and Sunday. That is a success story, but its continued success is not guaranteed unless it gets the number of visitors that it requires.

In that context, I have raised with ministers the problem of getting signage from the national motorway network to Scotland's national book town. If the co-ordination that the minister seeks to achieve in this document is to be a reality, we must have signage from the national motorway network to one of the success stories for it to remain a success story.

No one will argue that the vision and aims set out in the document cannot be pursued. However, I am sceptical as to whether a ministerial committee and yet another task force will be able to cut across departmental boundaries sufficiently to overcome old prejudices and achieve those aims. I am certain that they will not be fully achieved until this Parliament has full control over Scotland's resources.

I move amendment S1M-896.2, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"notes the publication by the Scottish Executive of Rural Scotland: A New Approach; recognises the need to place rural Scots in the mainstream of its policies and activities, but regrets that the retention of many powers at Westminster undermines the ability of the Scottish Executive to be fully effective in dealing with the affairs of rural Scotland."

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 10:52 am, 25th May 2000

I begin by drawing the attention of the Parliament to my entry in the "Register of Members' Interests", where I have declared that I am a farmer and a landowner.

I welcome the publication of "Rural Scotland: A New Approach". At the risk of sounding a little sarcastic, if we judge the priorities of the Executive by the thickness and glossiness of its documents, rural Scotland has little to worry about, as this document extends to 72 very shiny pages, putting it right up there with the top priorities compared with other glossy brochures that we have seen recently.

As I look through the pages, I see that it is a genuine attempt to put rural Scotland in perspective, to take a holistic view, to try to understand better why things have gone desperately wrong and to seek ways to improve the lot of those who are sliding into Scotland's rural poverty trap. However, I have to say that it also bears a striking resemblance to what the Executive has been saying for a whole year now.

Worse than that, its roots can be traced back still further. I have a copy of a speech made by Lord Sewel to the rural forum annual general meeting in Oban on 31 October 1997, in which it is easy to recognise the Executive policy of today. He said:

"Today, I want to signal a new approach to rural development policy in Scotland, one based on sustainable development, and one which places the rural citizen at the heart of the process. Only by involving and empowering local communities can genuine, lasting, sustainable development for rural Scotland be achieved."

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Does Alex Johnstone agree that that speech might indicate that, despite the fact that ministers change, the speech writers remain the same?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Alasdair Morgan might say that, but I could not possibly comment.

Reading the text of the speech, I must confess that, like his successor, Lord Sewel knew what problems face rural Scotland, but perhaps he also thought that he knew how to solve them. Two and a half years later, the same ideas are starting to sound a bit like rhetoric or a mantra to be chanted when the truth becomes too much to bear.

What is the truth? If my answer sounds like repetition, it will be for the same reasons that other speakers repeat things. The truth is that rural Scotland's precarious economic structure—which has, none the less, proved to be sustainable for generations of rural Scots—is under attack from all sides.

The first attack is through taxation. Since 1997, the Labour Government has cut income tax. That is a sound policy and one for which I am prepared to commend the Government, but it does little to help anybody in rural Scotland, where wages are low and where businesses have been squeezed dry. If rural businesses must pay income tax, profit is a prerequisite.

The second attack is through fuel tax. Members know that a car is a necessity in large parts of Scotland. Although many of us believe that public transport should be improved, there are places in Scotland where that will never be a practical solution. On that, I will divert slightly to mention that we will have a debate on the Borders rail link one week from today.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I thank the member from the bottom of my heart for giving way.

I have heard Alex Johnstone's comments on taxation. Do they mean that he is distancing himself from John Major's Government?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

If Mr Stone will tolerate me for a moment longer, he will see that I am, effectively, distancing the minister from the current Westminster Government. The plot thickens.

We must never forget that fuel taxation goes far beyond the cost of running a car. The cost of fuel to the road haulage industry is a cost to every industry in rural Scotland, including, as mentioned in the document, shops and post offices. The cost of hauling raw materials to the north and north-east is bad enough, but the cost of getting them to the Highlands and Islands is worse. The cost of hauling products out of those areas is also exaggerated by the tax. Every penny that is added to the cost of a litre of diesel is another nail in the coffin of the rural economy.

Another attack comes through the increases in council tax, which brings me to another point. There has been systematic erosion of the support that the Executive gives to rural local authorities. As resources are concentrated on what the Executive sees as priorities, the continuously escalating costs of providing the most basic services in rural Scotland remain unacknowledged.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Alex Johnstone's speech has been entirely negative so far. He has not made a single positive contribution. Is there anything in the document that he welcomes? While I am on my feet, will Alex Johnstone remind everybody who it was that introduced the fuel duty escalator and who had the opportunity to remove it, but did not?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I remind Mr Rumbles that I welcomed the principle of the document in my opening remarks.

The resources that the Government is currently failing to concentrate in rural areas have resulted in the loss of schools, police provision, road maintenance and even, in Aberdeenshire, public toilets. Worst of all is the damage that is being done to the rural economy by the erosion of our primary industries.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I ask the member to give way—although I am being prompted to do so by the Liberals.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I have already given way to a significant extent and am in danger of running out of time.

The main concern that I want to express before I end is about rural primary industries, although I must say a few positive words about the Minister for Rural Affairs, Ross Finnie, and his deputy, John Home Robertson. Anyone who is in an industry that is dependent on farming, crofting, fishing or forestry for its living must acknowledge that the level of financial support that they have provided has remained high.

I do not blame them for the catastrophic erosion of our rural primary industries. That I blame on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The failure of the European single currency experiment has led to Scotland's rural primary industries being unable to compete with their EU rivals. The failure of the chancellor to act to protect them is scandalous. In the light of the enormous benefit that he has reaped from the Fontainebleau agreement, his failure to provide full agrimonetary compensation to our farming industry is a breach of contract of epic proportions.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Unfortunately, no.

That is where "Rural Scotland: A New Approach" falls short. The Conservative party has always believed that the primary rural industries of farming and crofting, fishing and forestry are the bedrock on which our rural economy must be built. Since prehistory, and until well within living memory, those industries have sustained a vibrant and diverse rural economy.

In this document, I see a series of ideas, some better than others, relating to the things that the Minister for Rural Affairs can do—and, by omission, the things that he cannot. I call on the minister to acknowledge that this document alone cannot cure the ills of rural Scotland, and to accept that the recovery of the rural primary industries is a prerequisite for a healthy rural economy.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I cannot take an intervention, as I am about to close.

I call on the minister to ensure that the financial aspects of that recovery are dealt with directly by the inclusion of the Minister for Finance, Jack McConnell, in the ministerial team on rural development, and to redouble his efforts—with my support—to secure fair treatment from the UK chancellor, as a way of mitigating the worst effects of the euro as it limps off into a corner to die. There is much in this document that I can support, but I must protest at what it fails to include.

I move amendment S1M-896.1, to leave out from "welcomes" to end and insert:

"notes the publication by the Scottish Executive of the document Rural Scotland: A New Approach; further notes the lack of progress which the Executive has made in placing rural Scots in the mainstream of its policies and activities, and calls upon the Executive to acknowledge that Scotland's rural economy was in the past, and must continue to be in the future, based on its primary industries."

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The debate is now open. Speeches are limited to four minutes plus interventions.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 11:01 am, 25th May 2000

I am delighted that we have decided to spend some time this morning debating the issues that affect rural Scotland. I am pleased that the document the minister has produced has exercised the minds of many members over the past week. I am sure that it has been welcomed by many people in rural Scotland.

I claim some credit for the debate, because it was the Liberal Democrats' involvement in rural Scotland that enabled us to bring influence to bear on the Executive and to secure its support for the steps that are now being taken. We have considerable problems in rural Scotland. Much has been done and over the past year great efforts have been made. Although the effect of those measures may not be immediate, I am sure that in the long term they will have the results that everyone hopes for.

One of the main planks of the rural economy of Scotland is the tourism industry. Much more needs to be done to support it. I hope that in the months and years ahead the Executive will support the industry in larger measure.

As we have heard, aquaculture has had its problems, which have had a serious effect on rural Scotland, as 6,500 jobs are associated directly or indirectly with the industry, many in very remote parts of the country. I hope that aquaculture's problems with various bugs and diseases have been addressed and overcome. I am thinking particularly of the problems the shellfish industry faced last year, which continue. Algal bloom has caused devastation for scallop farmers. The fishing ban remains in force in some parts. More should be done to address the problem, because we are now arriving at the time of year when the algal bloom will develop again, and there may be another ban on scallop fishing.

The other activity that has been brought to my attention over the past few weeks is that of the dairy industry. We have seen in island communities the problems that arise out of the closure of some of the dairy industry and of the creamery in Islay. I have spoken to colleagues and dairy producers in Highland who are most distressed about predation by other dairy companies, which are almost determined to have a monopoly by squeezing those small producers out of business.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does John Munro agree that the recent permission by John Reid to allow his face to be shown on the side of milk cartons of Wiseman Dairies is seen in the Highlands, where some companies are possibly facing difficulties, as a singularly inappropriate and ill-advised move?

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

Fergus Ewing is well aware of the situation that I referred to. I hope that the Scottish Executive will take steps to ensure that predation is arrested before we have more havoc and devastation.

The thought for today is the threatened strike by Caledonian MacBrayne, which will affect huge areas of the west Highlands. Island communities will be cut off for four days. Can members imagine what would happen if that were to happen in Edinburgh or Glasgow? If there were a blockade for four days, there would be anarchy and civil war on the streets, yet little is being done to address the situation.

I need not point out that the Scottish Executive is responsible for the Caledonian MacBrayne empire. I hope that the Executive will bring its influence to bear on the meeting that is taking place this morning in Oban to try to resolve the situation, so that the strike can be averted to the benefit of the communities that depend, on a daily basis, on the services of the Caledonian MacBrayne empire.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party 11:07 am, 25th May 2000

I say to the minister that the real test lies not in declarations of intent or national initiatives, but in the experience of local people. The decline in the primary sector and its impact on downstream activities, public expenditure constraints, high unit costs, rural fuel costs, the withdrawal of basic services—with consequent redundancies among local authority staff—and inevitable population loss, form a downward spiral that shows no sign of slowing down.

The Executive will be judged on how well—or otherwise—it delivers for rural Scotland, particularly those parts that are experiencing rural poverty. With 20 per cent of rural households on an income of less than £108 a week, and with figures from earlier this year showing a further 22 per cent drop in farm incomes, rural poverty is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The Rural Affairs Committee was advised this week that rural policy responses need to be more subtle. I want to address one area in which that could usefully be achieved. We urgently need to develop systems for the identification and measurement of rural deprivation. That is vital information in ensuring equitable funding and effective targeting of scarce resources. I am pleased that rural poverty gets a wee mention on page 37 of "Rural Scotland" and that the minister elaborated on the issue in his remarks, but this issue is not new. We have known for a long time that measures are needed.

I wish to underline the importance of making progress quickly, because current measures are totally inappropriate for rural settings. For example, high levels of car ownership in a rural area serve to indicate only the lack of public transport, not wealth. Low levels of registered unemployment mask the fact that much work is seasonal or short-term and that young people have to migrate to find jobs. Very few return. That is devastating, because they are the life-blood of the community.

Current statistical analysis does not allow the fine detail on rural poverty to emerge. Because Aberdeenshire is lumped in with Aberdeen and Moray, the data are skewed such that they hide the pockets of poverty. The case for funding rural initiatives in Aberdeenshire is therefore very difficult to make.

In a recent enterprise network review paper, Henry McLeish said that the per capita gross domestic product of Grampian is 136 per cent of the national average. That, of course, is the figure for Aberdeen city only. It is very unfortunate that that misapprehension is being perpetuated by such a senior figure. According to Aberdeenshire Council statistics, earnings in north and west Aberdeenshire are only 75 per cent of the national average. We must establish a system of collecting local, rather than regional, data.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat

The problem Irene McGugan has highlighted is the very problem that I think I acknowledged. There are concerns about the distribution of data in local and central Government statistics. Despite Mr Morgan's reluctance to have another task force, does the member accept that we need to bring people together to tackle this issue? There has to be a group to examine the data and statistics for rural poverty. That issue needs to be addressed urgently and it is a disgrace that present policy instruments do not reflect that.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

I accept that. The point I am trying to make is that we have known for a very long time that we need to do that.

In closing, I would like to give the minister one example of an excellent community initiative—such as the one that is promoted in the Executive's document—that has been failed by the current system. It is now too late for that initiative. Portsoy and District Ltd was a community-led economic development project in north-west Aberdeenshire that was set up in 1996. The communities saw the economic decline and the loss of services, amenities, post offices and shops; they wanted to address those problems locally in cost-effective and sustainable ways.

The project's list of achievements is impressive, but adequate deprivation indicators were not identified or were not sufficiently refined to support its case for funding to build on and develop the pattern of services it provided. The communities fear—and I fear—that by the time the much-needed index of rural deprivation is completed and published, the organisation will be a distant memory. It ceased to be funded in March this year. I urge the Executive to provide—sooner rather than later—the data the project's successors will need.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 11:12 am, 25th May 2000

I welcome the publication of this document. I note that, despite my partnership colleagues' claiming a great deal of the credit for what is in it, it actually follows on very logically from a document that was published by the Scottish Labour party in 1997—"New Life for Scotland's Rural Communities". As a member of the Scottish executive committee at that time, I had a great deal of pleasure in working on it.

I would like to take a slightly different approach to the debate. We have already heard the single transferable amendment from the SNP. We have also heard the Tory time warp—giving us lessons in history but omitting 18 years of it that certainly destroyed part of the rural community that I represent.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Is the member prepared to accept that the vast majority of rural businesses would be delighted to exchange their financial circumstances today with the ones they had in May 1997?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

The miners in my community would not exchange their circumstances now for those the Tories left them in. They live and work in the rural communities, and are part of them.

Transport has already been mentioned. I welcome the move to get heavy lorries off small rural roads and on to rail, but there are difficulties. The forestry and opencast coal industries in my constituency have attempted to do that, but unless there are trains and track to put them on, and unless we can tackle the problems with English Welsh and Scottish Railway Ltd and the availability of rolling stock, they will not be able to do so.

For some small rural communities, we have to recognise that quality of life in terms of transport is about having a decent road system. We will never have a system in which car use and road haulage are stopped—nor would we want it.

Traffic congestion problems in cities are very different from problems in rural communities.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I am pleased that Cathy Jamieson has recognised the problems that road hauliers face. Does she accept that many road hauliers, such as Donald Watt in my constituency, have already had to close down because of the high burden of fuel tax and vehicle registration duty on lorries imposed by her Government? How can she defend the appalling record of Gordon Brown in his anti-Scottish fuel tax and vehicle registration duty, which have been imposed since the document that she referred to a few moments ago was produced?

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Not only do we have the single transferable amendment—we yet again have the single transferable speech. I will not even respond to that intervention, because I want to say something about the people I represent.

Rural transport is an issue for people in villages who, perhaps more than people in cities, rely on public transport to access services. There are problems in my constituency at the moment as Stagecoach has announced that it will close the bus garage in Girvan, which means that drivers who live in that area will have to make a 22-mile journey in the morning, without a bus, to Ayr to start their work to provide the services that are desperately needed in rural communities.

The Save the Children Fund has published a report that draws on the views of children and young people who find it difficult to access transport services in rural areas to get to education or to a workplace. I will make a wee comment on the press reports that a new political party is about to be set up to take on all those issues. Apparently, the countryside party is going to be set up. In The Scotsman this morning, there is speculation about whether it would represent low-paid workers, who I am glad the Tories acknowledge live and work in rural areas—although I remind them again that they did not support the national minimum wage for those workers. The article questioned whether this countryside party would stand up for low-paid rural workers. I suspect that it would not, because that is our job.

I am a representative of the Transport and General Workers Union as well as a member of the Labour party. The TGWU has a proud record of supporting low-paid workers in rural areas. I will pose a question that is of relevance to us. Will the minister indicate, in his reply, the time scale for a report on the future of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board, which is under review at the moment? It is crucial and the Labour party has campaigned for its retention over a long period of time.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 11:17 am, 25th May 2000

I like the thistle on the front cover of "Rural Scotland: A New Approach", but I remind the minister that weeds and tares are normally a problem—especially to farmers in the Highlands.

I have read this document from cover to cover. While I agree with its aims, it will have been a waste of time and money if actions are not taken immediately to stop another Highland clearance. Those who live in the country should have a quality of life that at least approaches that of their urban counterparts.

As usual, I am speaking from a Highlands and Islands point of view. At a time when we are continually reminded of the UK's wealth and prosperity, the people in the Highlands and Islands must wonder whether they are on the same planet, let alone in the same nation. Agriculture, especially sheep and cattle farming, is the cornerstone of the Highland economy. A recent survey by the National Farmers Union of Scotland found that two thirds of farmers' children do not want to carry on in farming as they can see no future in the industry. That is hardly surprising at the moment. Those aware of economics watch with a mixture of incredulity and polite sympathy the struggle that their parents face to put plates of food on the table. Given the chance, the majority would follow in their parents' footsteps, but with prices plummeting and costs spiralling they do not see the point.

The special skills that are passed from parent to child will soon disappear, especially the skills of handling livestock that have been fostered by generations. We will also lose the dogs that are specially trained to make the job possible and whose handling is a special skill. We lose those practical skills at our peril. It is not the fault of farmers. This crisis has been brought about by continuing rafts of unnecessary regulations, which have resulted in a vast drop in farm incomes and reams of extra paperwork that greatly lengthens the farmer's day as he struggles to understand it.

Diversification schemes such as renewable energy and tourism-related activities are good, but hill farmers mostly have huge overdrafts and cannot find the capital that is required. In some cases, they lose their money thanks to extraordinary governmental bungling, as in the recent agricultural business improvement scheme fiasco. There is nothing wrong with the product, and a way must be found of transferring a proportion of the added value from the supermarket shelf back to the producer.

The Government must halt now the extra legislation that is not imposed elsewhere in Europe. The Government must either drop or pay for the meat hygiene inspection charges. It must call on the Brownies of Westminster to match accessible European aid and drop interest rates.

The fishing industry, which is vital to jobs in rural Scotland, gets no help at all. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation said recently that the Government had contributed a great deal of rhetoric and a modest amount of financial incentive.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Hang on.

Last May, even that modest contribution was withdrawn, apparently to relieve a funding crisis at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That money was for safety measures. While our taxpayers contribute to the modernisation of the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish fishing fleets, the Executive refuses to access available EU funding for our own rapidly aging fleet. Our valuable shellfish and white fish are at rock-bottom prices while we are still importing £485 million of fish per annum. Although I am glad that the final restrictions banning scallop fishing in certain areas were lifted yesterday, the ban that we were originally told might last a month lasted a year and caused misery in rural areas, with no compensation of any sort.

I am pleased that freshwater fishing is mentioned on page 48, as that sector would contribute greatly to the rural economy all over Scotland if it were helped. If the Executive really wants to help rural Scotland, it must lower fuel prices significantly—at least 20p a gallon. Liquefied petroleum gas may be an alternative in future, but at the moment high fuel prices are ruining everything.

Last, I wish to talk about information technology. Rural populations do not become internet fluent overnight without help. If we want entrepreneurs to drive rural economies and act as capitalists, better infrastructure and incentives are needed.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 11:21 am, 25th May 2000

The challenges and opportunities that are faced in rural Scotland are, of course, extensive. I will concentrate on the first element of the vision statement, which is given on page 5 of the document:

"Our future prosperity depends on combining traditional strengths with an appetite for change."

Obviously, some of the traditional strengths of rural Scotland are its traditional industries, such as agriculture. One of the appetites for change that we need to have is to harness our burgeoning knowledge economy to support rural Scotland, expand the markets for its traditional industries and give rural residents access to employment and education.

Eleven per cent of Scotland's rural population works in agriculture. We have debated the problems of that industry many times in the chamber. Short-term assistance to the industry relies principally on actions that are taken in Westminster and Brussels, but long-term strategies to support agriculture and to help it survive are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. We should concentrate on those strategies instead of yet again reducing every issue to a debate on the constitution.

The Executive's commitment to agri-environment schemes such as the countryside stewardship scheme is welcome. Farming is extremely important to the environment, but environmentally friendly practices often impact on farm incomes and it is difficult for farmers to bear the cost.

The document makes a welcome commitment to using Scotland's science and research base to support the industries on which the rural economy depends. For example, the use of technology to reduce bureaucratic burdens on farmers will be welcomed. I will talk about the use of research and development.

I was pleased to read on page 12 that the Executive is working with the food and drinks industry, enterprise bodies and research institutes throughout Scotland, to maximise the industry's potential. On page 14 the document says that

"the five Scottish Agricultural and Biological research institutes, and the Scottish Agricultural College"— contribute—

"by identifying innovative products and technologies which could be exploited commercially."

I am relieved to read that, because when I asked a question at the meeting of the Rural Affairs Committee on 9 May about the role of agricultural colleges in supporting primary producers and commercialising research, the Scottish Executive rural affairs department representative told me that the research programme is not near market and is not aimed at solving today's problems; that near-market research is done by the private sector.

I was concerned about that and would like reassurance from the minister that the Executive's intention is as stated and that the rural affairs department will use its research and development base, which has a budget of £40 million, to support rural industries.

I have already mentioned the importance of new technology in enabling people in rural areas to access employment and education. I agree with Alasdair Morgan about the need for the infrastructure that would allow remote and rural areas to get access to the internet. I hope that the Executive, in partnership with others, including the telecommunications companies, will address the problem caused in rural areas by the fact that the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure increases in inverse proportion to population density. Unless we overcome that problem, there is a real danger that rural areas will become information poor and will be disadvantaged.

I was interested in the report of the digital Scotland task force, which also came out this week. Recommendation 60 suggests:

"the Scottish Executive, working with SEn and HIE, should continue to review telecomms infrastructure capacity and availability throughout Scotland."

Recommendation 61 states:

"The Scottish Executive should work with Scottish Enterprise, HIE and telecomms companies and others, to review supply of and demand for digital links in remote and rural areas . . . the enterprise bodies should explore with the telcos ways of encouraging investment in services".

Unless we do that, rural areas will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by new technology.

I want to say a little more about education. In particular, I want to mention the Crichton campus in Dumfries, which I am pleased to see gets another honourable mention, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. There are a lot of important and interesting developments in education. I worked for the Open University for seven years. In that time, I witnessed a veritable revolution in the techniques used for distance teaching and learning. I hope that all those opportunities will be seized and utilised to stabilise and improve the economies of our rural areas.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 11:26 am, 25th May 2000

I am afraid that I am rather cynical when faced with another shiny, new brochure. I say to Mike Rumbles: the brochure contains an awful lot of rhetoric and not a lot of specifics. Perhaps Mike Rumbles has a different copy, which has the Liberal Democrats' input, rather than a rehash of the Labour party's 1997 document.

I will try to be fair and see whether, a year down the road, the principles in the brochure match the reality. I have no problem with the Executive's statement, on page 5, that in rural areas it is supporting

"employers and communities to stimulate local and national economic success."

However, to do that, there needs to be a healthy infrastructure and supported and integrated services. We would not dispute that.

I will test what has been stated. I will start small and move big. Rural schools, which are at the heart of the success of communities, are referred to on page 20. The Executive's statement is, to say the least, disappointing. It simply reiterates:

"From time to time it is necessary for local authorities to review whether the network of rural schools in their areas continues to serve modern needs."

The report goes on to say that consultation must take place

"to ensure that the . . . issues relating to the closure proposal are fully aired and taken into account."

So what? We want leadership in the promotion of the continuance of small rural schools, because that is how we get generations to continue in villages.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Rather than criticising, will the member agree that some of the initiatives being taken by local authorities such as South Ayrshire Council—which use new technology to enable the grouping of schools so as to keep them open as an integral part of the community—are the way forward?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The member is being unfair: I welcome anything that helps rural schools to stay open. The fact is that the Public Petitions Committee receives petitions from parents of children at schools that are perpetually threatened with closure. Of course I welcome the steps, but I also want leadership. I want more: I want the Executive to say that it is committed to this.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

No, I want to move on. Members can no doubt raise the issue later.

I want to talk about post offices. I am glad that there has been a reappraisal of the attitude towards rural post offices, which are at the heart of rural communities. They sustain the grocer's shop and the area. Once those key things go from a small village—I should know because I lived in a village for 15 years—the community dies on its feet and young families move out.

Health and community care, too, is essential in sustaining rural communities. As rural communities have more than the average of the older population, the demands on social work departments are sometimes way beyond their means. Again I refer to my experience on the Public Petitions Committee. We constantly receive petitions from rural areas; we have received petitions from pensioners in Irvine and from Oban because services for the elderly are being removed. We are not being fair to the people who have lived their lives in those areas and who find that they do have the facilities to stay in their own community. There have also been problems in the Borders and East Lothian, where there have been closures of residential homes because social work departments do not have the money to make placements. I will say more on that later, at question time.

According to the Executive's figures, investment in Scotland's trunk roads and motorways in 1998 to 2000 will amount to £23 million. In 2000-01, £14 million will be invested and in 2001-02 the figure will be £17 million. We do not have many motorways or trunk roads. In fact, the Executive gets round the problem in the Borders by detrunking the A7 so that the local authority has to pay.

I would never get up to speak without mentioning railway lines. I am grateful to Alex Johnstone for putting the Borders rail link on the agenda. The document says:

"Other rural areas have lost their link with the rail network, but, as the Borders railway feasibility study shows, the case for reinstatement can be investigated against the background of changing patterns of travel."

So what? There has been no leadership, commitment or money.

Last week, I made the point that for £63 million, 700 jobs were created in Fife; £73 million in the Scottish Borders would create 900 jobs. That is the test of a new approach to rural Scotland.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 11:31 am, 25th May 2000

I welcome the express commitment to rural Scotland that is contained in the document. I hope that Mike Rumbles will be delighted with the fact that my speech will be entirely positive—that is the way to be green.

The encouragement of local training networks, public transport, farmers' markets, organic farming and local credit unions is fundamental to preserving a sense of place and identity in rural Scotland. We would like the Executive to make it easier for farms and communities to install small hydro, biomass and wind energy systems, either individually or under community control. Many years ago that was a Labour vision—particularly hydro.

Everything possible should be done to enable village shops, and post offices in particular, to remain financially viable. That would include varying business rates, council tax and so on. Of course, replacing business rates with a turnover tax would be the fairest way in which to do that. A village without a shop or a post office is no longer a village—it is a collection of houses connected by a road and, in most cases, private transport to the nearest town. We should regard access to basic needs—food and day-to-day supplies—by foot as a basic right of all communities, whether they are rural or urban. We should enshrine those rights in planning law.

Before I finish, I would like to make one small suggestion on information technology. Many people have migrated to rural communities but continue to work in towns; they work mainly on computers. Also in many small towns and villages there are many homeworkers who work from their computers, with no one to talk to all day. This is not entirely my idea, but came from the architect who did the wonderful energy conservation job at Norton House in Edinburgh.

Think of the advantages in setting up computer centres that are open for use or rent in rural villages or small towns. They could have the most advanced computer systems available for use. Users would cut down on car journeys, they would have more leisure time, they would spend more time with their families and they would become part of the local community instead of staying in a village and carrying out their lives in the nearest town. It would have advantages: it would benefit the environment, families, local schools and communities, which could begin to expand. Services would expand round those little nodes of computer excellence. I commend the idea to the Executive.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 11:34 am, 25th May 2000

I welcome the document, as it mentions a number of good examples of best practice from throughout Scotland. I hope that we can work on those models for the future, taking the examples that have been worked up in some parts of rural Scotland and planting the seeds in other parts.

In my area, there have recently been a number of significant developments. Good examples are the Tweed Foundation heritage project and Rural Partnership near St Boswells, both of which have been visited by the ministers. They are examples of best practice that can be taken on and developed elsewhere.

Another of those, as mentioned in the document, is the Heriot-Watt University-Borders College link-up, which is delivering distance learning in the Borders, not only in the towns, but eventually, I hope, in villages such as Newcastleton in the south.

An enhanced communications network is extremely important, as has been said by a number of members. I had hoped that the Borders would have attracted the headquarters of the university for industry. Some of us are not particularly impressed that, while the university for industry will deliver to rural areas, the dispersal of its headquarters will be all the way from Meridian Court to Argyle Street. It would have been better if it had been located in a rural community, but there we are.

I noticed a reference to the university of the south of Scotland. That is a fine-sounding concept but, at the risk of offending Elaine Murray, it is a little dated now. Because of the development that Heriot-Watt University and Borders College have made in the Borders, the north-south link is probably more important than the east-west one.

The document rightly points out that a focus of Heriot-Watt University-Borders College activity is sustainable and environmental technologies and emerging markets in technical textiles. The future success of rural economies, such as that of the Borders, lies partly in adding value locally to local products. In fact, the textiles industry originally did just that: it took local wool and turned it into cloth. However, it has changed remarkably in the past few years. Skills and expertise are now best used in high-quality, top-of-the-range products such as cashmere.

If we could process more products closer to source, we could do much for rural Scotland. For example, red meat produced in the Borders is made ready for the consumer largely outside the region. The fish landed at Eyemouth is processed largely elsewhere. Our timber is hauled out of the area to be cut and finished elsewhere. However, there are examples in the Borders—and in other parts of Scotland—of successfully adding value locally, including Farne Salmon in Duns and the Woodschool at Ancrum that the minister visited. Scottish Enterprise Borders, with the Scottish Borders Council and the local branch of the National Farmers Union, is investigating means of producing, processing and finishing red meat locally.

The minister can help by considering international examples. Perhaps he could fund a study of how value is added locally in other parts of the world. For instance, can we learn anything from Iceland about fish processing and packing? Can we consider niche producers, such as the cranberry growers in New England, who have developed locally a particularly strong product? What about wine producers? Are there international comparisons that we can draw on to help to add value locally to products?

I commend the energy supply from crops project, about which I recently wrote to the minister. Not only would the capital investment locally be welcomed, but the model could be taken on and used elsewhere in rural Scotland.

The minister and others have mentioned transport. Strategic investment in roads and rail is immensely important. If we are to get finished goods to market, we need effective communications; in the south of Scotland, we need good communications north to the central belt and south into England. Perhaps the minister will consider promoting better cross-border liaison between those responsible for trunk road and local authority road improvements and maintenance. Although the extra money for trunk road maintenance is very welcome, there should be a matching increase in grant-aided expenditure for local authority roads. The car will be the predominant form of transport throughout most of rural Scotland, and local authorities will be maintaining the majority of roads. We must address the 25 years of under-investment in that area.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 11:39 am, 25th May 2000

I welcome the strategy document, as it seeks to take an holistic approach to the problems faced by rural communities. That does not appear to be the case with the SNP. Before Christine Grahame criticises rural schools closures, she should remember that an SNP education convener in Argyll and Bute is seeking to close them.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

No, I am not taking any interventions.

SNP criticism of care of the elderly in Oban bears no relation to what is happening on the ground—I have had a first-hand view of the excellent services that are provided there.

I am pleased that, in his introduction to the document, the First Minister acknowledges that, when rural areas are seen through urban eyes, they have not always benefited. That is why it is necessary to use the people and agencies on the ground to ensure that we have the best policies for individual areas. I am glad that the minister has acknowledged that rural areas are diverse and that what is appropriate in Shetland might not be appropriate in Argyll and Bute.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Although the principles about child care and education on page 19 of the document are wonderful, six rural schools are being closed in Argyll and Bute. Does Rhoda Grant accept that primary schools underpin the rural communities that the document is striving to support?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The six rural schools in Argyll and Bute have not yet been closed. The campaign to keep them open is on-going and the whole Parliament should support it.

This morning, I will concentrate on two issues, the first of which is assistance to crofting communities. I am pleased that the Executive's initiatives are encouraging people to take up crofting. For example, the croft entrants scheme will encourage 260 young entrants into crofting by April 2002. However, I am concerned about the level of assistance that is received through the crofting building grants and loans scheme. Financial assistance does not meet the costs of building a house, and the scheme is all the more vital in view of the difficulties that crofters face in obtaining finances through banks and building societies. As those institutions do not understand crofting tenure, they are unwilling to lend money to crofters unless they are owner-occupiers. Purchasing a croft restricts people's access to grants and creates a vicious circle.

For example, a three-bedroomed house might cost approximately £40,000. Anyone seeking help to pay for that would receive a grant of £11,000 and a loan of £17,500, which totals £29,000, leaving a deficit of £11,000. A young person would be prohibited from taking on a croft in the knowledge that they would be unable to provide themselves with a home. As it is essential that measures to encourage young entrants into crofting go hand in hand with the measures that allow them to take up those opportunities, we need a package that addresses the full cost of building a house.

The second issue on which I want to touch is fisheries. I am convinced that local fisheries management is the way forward, as local communities can set priorities and ensure that there is a healthy fishery for future generations. Inshore fishing must not be seen as the poor relation to deep-sea fishing; it should be recognised as an economic generator for small fragile communities. Local management would provide such a focus.

We must find ways of improving the standard of the catch in all sectors, ensuring that the fish caught will fetch the premium market price. The economic well-being of fishing is inextricably linked to the economic conditions of areas that are dependent on fishing.

The Executive's new approach is the way forward, as it integrates rural policy, allows departments to work together to formulate sympathetic policies and, most important, enables people and agencies on the ground to be the driving force of this rural strategy.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party 11:44 am, 25th May 2000

At the outset, I must respond to Rhoda Grant's cheap and pathetic point about Argyll and Bute. The SNP's policy is the same as it always was: we oppose the closure of rural schools. That policy will not change. I point out to her that a Labour member of the Argyll and Bute Council is as involved in the situation as the other members and that the council is led by a Liberal Democrat. Given those facts, it was not helpful of her to try to score a cheap party political point. If Rhoda Grant wants to do something useful for once and defend the schools in Argyll and Bute, she should get behind the campaign to get special islands needs allowance status for Argyll and Bute. That would mean that the schools would not have to close.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I want to try to say something positive about the document. We have to recognise the environmental concerns that are at the document's heart. We have a recycled speech from Lord Sewel and a recycled Labour policy from before the election. At least the Executive is sound on the environmental question.

Away from the airy and comfortable concepts in the document, we have to look hard for some detail. We read that we should consult, talk, have committees, build on best practice and so on— well whoop de do. Everyone agrees with that. It is hardly groundbreaking; it is not the stuff of radicalism that we would expect from this Executive. [Laughter.] Well, maybe it is what we should expect. Perhaps the summit of the Executive's ambition is to put a thistle on the front of a glossy document and hope for the best.

The minister claims to want to consider people's priorities. I hear of two issues from people across the Highlands and Islands: ferries and fuel. Whenever fuel is mentioned, particularly by Fergus Ewing, a collective groan rises from the chamber: "Why is Fergus going on about fuel again?" The reason why we keep coming back to the question is that we never get an answer and we never get any action. The Liberal Democrats do not know whether they agree on the subject with their leader in London; when Fergus Ewing asked whether they agreed with the UK party's policy of putting another 5p a litre on fuel, we did not get an answer.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

If Mr Rumbles tells me his party's position, I will be delighted to give way.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I will repeat our position again. Duncan Hamilton probably does not understand it, so I hope that he will listen carefully. The Scottish Liberal Democrats make a clear distinction between urban problems and rural problems. Our MPs in London have consistently voted against the fuel duty escalator that the Tories imposed and that Labour has perpetuated. We are against fuel tax in rural areas.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

I am not singling the Liberal Democrats out for the blame. I am fully aware of the fact that the Tories introduced the fuel duty escalator and that Labour increased it. However, I am also fully aware that the Liberal Democrats are committed to increasing it even further, which strikes me as odd. Instead of the glossy brochures, it would be useful to have some action.

The minister should also consider the situation with the ferries. The threat to Caledonian MacBrayne is real. People like to have a go at it but it has the advantage of being a public company: Donald Dewar is a shareholder. That means that it is directly accountable to the people of the Highlands and Islands and that they have some input if they want to improve the service or lower the fares. We know that Scottish Office research from 1994 advocates lower fares. That would be a radical move, but we are unlikely to see it. Instead, Sarah Boyack's recent announcement threatens the cohesion of the network. We have a situation where private operators can bid for the profitable routes and leave the loss-making routes in public ownership. What does that mean for the overall subsidy?

Crucially, does it mean that there will be higher fares on those routes? Those are the issues that this document should be addressing.

I do not oppose the document—I do not even rate it. There is nothing in it of controversy or progress. If the minister wants to deal with people's priorities, I suggest that he take radical action on fuel and ferries. He should stand up for Scotland, rather than apologising for his national leader.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative 11:49 am, 25th May 2000

I declare an interest, as I am a farmer.

I welcome the wonderfully glossy brochure that the minister has launched. I particularly welcome his commitment to the rural stewardship scheme for agriculture, the change in emphasis on tourism and his recognition that the average wages of rural manual workers are far too low. I remind Cathy Jamieson that it was the National Farmers Union that voted for the retention of the Agricultural Wages Board the last time that there was a review.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I shall give way briefly, but I would like to get started.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

Will the NFU support the retention of the Agricultural Wages Board this time?

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I do not know how the NFU will vote this time around. There is now a minimum wages board, so is there a need for an agricultural one?

The issues that have been raised are of great importance, and no one can disagree with the minister's motherhood-and-apple-pie statements this morning. I hope that what will set this review apart from the previous and remarkably similar one that was conducted by Lord Sewel and John Home Robertson is that the fine ideas and glossy brochures will be translated into action. Action is badly needed.

Scottish agriculture is drinking in the last chance saloon. In three short years under a Labour Government, Scottish net farm incomes have fallen from £470 million to just £75 million—in other words, they have fallen by more than 80 per cent. The day of reckoning is at hand. Last week, Brian Pack, the chief executive of the ANM group, raised the prospect of there being no agricultural production in Britain if present trends continue. North of Carlisle, farming is no longer viable in the prevailing agricultural climate. Unless that situation is addressed quickly, there will be an exodus from Scottish farm land on a scale that has not been seen since the 1930s. Those are the stakes that we are playing for.

The process of leaving the land has already begun. One has only to read last week's Scottish Farmer: suddenly, there are more farms on the market, to let or buy, than there were. The dam that has held for so long is about to burst, as farmers finally admit defeat and get out. Last week, at the Ayr show, which is normally a celebratory event, I was struck by the mood of despair among colleagues and friends, which appalled me. This Government must take its share of the blame for that.

I welcome the initiatives that Ross Finnie has outlined in "Rural Scotland: A New Approach" as a forward strategy for Scottish agriculture. I hope that he can make them work. Farmers perceive that, in the Government, an ideological battle is being waged between town and country interests. Farmers accept that in the past the Government did not have the funds to sort out the problems of the rural sector, but they know that that argument no longer stands up. Gordon Brown has the money, but he has no intention of parting with it. The policy of importing food from abroad is leading, as surely as night follows day, to the destruction of a once great and proud industry.

The minister must make the reviews and glossy brochures work, or he will witness an exodus of farmers and farm workers the like of which has not been seen in Scotland since the 1930s. In my constituency, dairy farming is on its knees and cannot get up. Hill farming and pig farming are on the verge of collapse, and arable farmers and nursery growers are having an equally difficult time. Although I do not question the sincerity of Ross Finnie's attempts to sort out the problems, I feel that his hands are tied—tied by Nick and Gordon Brown who in fact hold the purse strings for rural Scotland.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I am about to finish.

Ross Finnie's hands are also tied because Europe cannot respond unless the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food makes the case in Brussels for Scottish farming and Scotland's rural areas. At the moment, that is not being done because the Brown twins will not allow it, because of match-funding cost implications.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I have asked John Scott to wind up, so he should not take any interventions. I ask him to close, please.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Sorry.

That is the scale of the problem that we face in Scotland. I wish "Rural Scotland: A New Approach" well and I hope that its proposals make a difference. I shall support the minister all the way in his attempt to implement those proposals, which are a step in the right direction. I just hope that the fine words and phrases can be turned into action.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

On a point of order. Is it in order for the Presiding Officer to rule out of order the taking of an intervention if the member has clearly indicated that he will take one?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Yes, it is. Mr Lochhead was on his feet, trying to make an intervention when I asked John Scott to wind up, so he was aware that the speech was coming to a close.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 11:54 am, 25th May 2000

The Executive's strategy for rural areas impinges on many sectors, too many to be covered in any one speech, although John Farquhar Munro made a good attempt to do so. Appropriate policies for remote rural areas on housing, poverty, engaging the voluntary sector and promoting public health are all essential in the Highlands and Islands.

On all those matters, the Executive has shown a willingness to listen to concerns and to meet and discuss the issues with the service providers from the Highlands. Meetings that I arranged between Wendy Alexander and housing associations from Shetland, Orkney and the Highland Council area are one example and have resulted in a pilot project to deliver the best possible social housing in remote rural areas. Next week Jackie Baillie will meet representatives of the voluntary sector from the Highlands and Islands. The Executive is very open to discussing the special issues for remote rural areas.

Until recently, tourism was an industry without direction, but now it is being taken seriously by the Executive. The strategy for tourism published in February gives additional funding for the industry, prioritises training, promotes new marketing strategies and encourages the use of information technology through Project Ossian. Making a career in tourism an attractive option is long overdue. As I have said several times before in debate, we need a proper career structure and decent pay to make sure that people who enter the industry stay in it. For many years, young people particularly have received so little incentive to stay in the industry that they have decided to leave not just their jobs but more often than not the areas in which they live. The holistic approach adopted by the Executive to the problems of the tourist industry should, I hope, reverse that trend.

Aquaculture is another industry that has had to struggle over the years. When this Parliament was established, the industry was in dire straits. Draconian EC regulations enforced a slaughter policy that destroyed perfectly healthy fish and brought the smaller-scale fish farmers to the brink of ruin. Thanks to the efforts of this Parliament, the Executive and the MEPs on the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries, we have a more flexible policy that will enable healthy fish from an affected farm to be put on the market, vaccination to be used as a tool to control the virus, and fish farmers to have the security of knowing that their stocks are not at risk. I hope that that will lead to growth in the sector and enable it to extend into white fish aquaculture, which would boost the already considerable number of jobs in the sector in the Highlands.

People in rural areas share the aspirations of people in urban areas. I believe that the Executive is delivering on those aspirations. A good example is child care and pre-school education in remote rural areas—something only dreamed about four years ago. To have delivered total cover for pre-school education for four-year-olds and 40 per cent of three-year-olds in the Highland Council area and to be about to deliver 70 per cent provision for three-year-olds by this autumn is a tremendous achievement. Family centres have been established to support the very young and their parents throughout the Highlands and Islands through partnerships with well-established voluntary groups that have experience in dealing with young families.

Provision for abused women has expanded over the past year. On Monday, I attended the annual general meeting of the Highland Domestic Abuse Forum; it is now able to employ a development officer and to roll out its education and training programme across the Highlands. In Moray, Argyll, the northern and western isles and elsewhere in the Highlands, new refuges are opening, outreach and children's workers are being appointed by Women's Aid and witness support schemes are being put in place—although I would like more money to be spent on better witness facilities in small rural court houses.

Rural areas, such as the area I represent, have needed a rural strategy for a long time. For too long problems have been looked at in isolation. On matters as diverse as tourism, aquaculture and domestic abuse, the Executive is making progress. More important, it is working in partnership with local organisations with the experience to enable them to deal effectively with the issues.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 11:58 am, 25th May 2000

We are here to debate this interesting document, "Rural Scotland: A New Approach". I was interested to see that the minister states on page 3:

"I wanted to see rural Scotland for myself and hear from the people who live and work in rural areas what issues concerned them most."

Perhaps it would be a new approach to try to hear, if not to listen to, what people in rural Scotland have to say. I mean no disrespect to the minister, whom I am sure we all view with personal fondness and respect, but there is no doubt in my mind that the issue that concerns people most—and that concerns most people—in rural Scotland and especially in the Highlands and Islands is the cost of fuel. The issue does not concern people in rural areas alone. A taxi driver told me today in quite vehement terms—I shall not give an exact quote—that, when the coalition partners came to power, petrol cost 61.9p in Glasgow, but it now costs 81.9p.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

The fuel costs for road transport are roughly 30 per cent of total costs. A 3 per cent rise in fuel tax is therefore passed on to a transport company as a 1 per cent increase in costs. Most schools, universities and other public institutions are asked to make 1 per cent efficiency savings year on year. Does Fergus Ewing agree that it is not beyond the capability of road haulage companies to make 1 per cent savings year on year?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

No. I am fond of Robin Harper, but I utterly disagree with him. I found it difficult to understand his computation; it is a long time since my limited maths qualifications were attained. However, I have the benefit of being able to read the figures in front of me, which suggest that the ones that he has quoted are totally wrong. According to the April EC petroleum bulletin, the cost of fuel in the Highlands and Islands was 22.6p per litre, whereas the retail price a couple of weeks ago in Glenborrodale was 90p. Robin Harper's calculation of 30 per cent is completely wrong. The actual take to the Government is, broadly speaking, four fifths of the price that is paid at the pump.

I would like to help out the Liberal Democrats, who do not seem to be aware of their own policy—we want to be helpful in this chamber, as we all get on with one another. To be fair to them, their policy is that vehicle excise duty should be abolished for some cars. However, Charles Kennedy said on 16 March 2000 that that would be compensated for by a 5p rise in fuel duty. It gets worse—or better, depending on which view one takes. That 5p rise in duty is described as small. So much for the Liberal policy.

We have the highest fuel tax and fuel costs in the world. I shall devote the rest of my speech to asking why that should be. Is it because of the oil companies? Ian Wells told the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee in January that the oil companies are charging the lowest prices in Europe. I disagree with him, because I have other figures that suggest that that is not entirely true.

The actual cost of fuel does not vary hugely in the European countries. The situation in the Highlands and Islands is slightly different. I am not here to defend or attack the oil companies, because they provide valuable appointments throughout Scotland. The Office of Fair Trading is conducting an inquiry into fuel pricing, but its inquiry is an exercise in utter futility. It has been going on for what seems like centuries and there is no indication of when the report will arrive. It is about as reliable as the old British Rail timetables—or perhaps Richard Branson's, if we want to move into the 21st century.

If the problem is not with the oil companies, is it with the atmosphere problems in the Highlands? Is it smog lying over Strontian or gridlock in Golspie? No. The problem is not with the environment. The problem is not green; the problem is Brown. Brown is the problem and Brown is the name. Brown—the man who does not know how much it costs to buy petrol, the man who is in charge of our country. With the other parties in this chamber, the penny is beginning to drop that the argument will not go away. The SNP takes the view that it is only with independence that we can end the nonsense and the discrimination against people throughout Scotland, and especially in rural parts of Scotland, who are being treated unfairly.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour 12:04 pm, 25th May 2000

I welcome the report and in particular the emphasis that it places on a new approach. It is vital that a joined-up, strategic approach is taken that can build communities. The Rural Affairs Committee is undertaking a major inquiry on the impact of changes in rural employment. I hope that we will be able to discuss that matter in the autumn. A number of interesting strands are already running through the evidence that the committee has gathered for its interim report and some of those issues have been discussed this morning.

I want to deal with partnership. There is clearly a need for all agencies to work together strategically; they must have a clear commitment and a common agenda. A strong message has come from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the need for community planning and I agree with that, but there must be ways of finding the bottom-up approach that will be vital to bring about change. Communities must be encouraged to become involved in the development of strategies for themselves. Community and voluntary organisations must be seen as integral to community planning.

There is evidence in the report of good practice—for example, the new futures programme in Sutherland, Lochaber Communications Network Ltd and others. All those projects have voluntary sector input; the voluntary sector has been a key partner. I mention particularly the role of rural councils for voluntary service in those partnerships. They play an essential role not only in support of the voluntary sector, but in facilitating community participation. They are involved in the development of projects in a number of areas, including economic development, education and training, child care, housing, community care and transport. I was pleased to see CVS mentioned in the report and I hope that Jackie Baillie will take their work into consideration when she reviews their funding. There goes the advert.

Before I finish, I would like to mention our cultural heritage, which I was pleased to see acknowledged in the report. I would like to flag up the importance of folk and traditional music to tourism in rural Scotland. People travel from all over the world to hear and participate in gatherings and festivals, many of which are held in rural areas. I hope that there will be recognition of that great tradition and that some resources can be found in the cultural strategy to develop and support that wonderful asset.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 12:07 pm, 25th May 2000

I welcome the establishment of the rural affairs department and the appointment of the ministerial team. It shows that the Labour-Liberal Democrat partnership is committed to Scotland, despite what the best attempts of the Tories and the nationalists would have the people of Scotland believe.

I was born and brought up and now live in rural Scotland, so I know well the value of life in a rural area—the sense of community, the beautiful landscape, the positive environment, the quality of education and of life that those bring. We must begin to see life in rural Scotland as a positive choice, rather than as something that happens to us and which we are powerless to change.

I also want to express my disappointment that the document does not include South Lanarkshire Council in its data. I am not convinced that the single indicator that was used to classify rural councils is necessarily the best, or that it gives the fullest picture of rural Scotland. I accept that there are a large number of urban areas in South Lanarkshire, but my constituency covers almost 600 square miles and accounts for 80 per cent of the land in South Lanarkshire, but only 20 per cent of the population. The issues that have been identified in the document as those that affect rural areas also affect my constituents. I ask that the task forces—which I welcome—take evidence from South Lanarkshire, because I am sure that that would support my assertion that there is a clear case for South Lanarkshire's inclusion.

I would like to pick up a couple of issues in the document, the first of which is transport. I agree with much of what Cathy Jamieson said, and rather than—as Fergus Ewing did—focusing on what we cannot do, I want to focus on what Parliament can do for transport in rural areas. We can lobby Westminster, but we must be clear about what we can do.

There is a need for investment in rural roads. That is a function of Scottish local authorities, for which they receive a grant from the Scottish Parliament's block grant. I ask the ministers to consider the issue of rural roads and their upkeep, as safety is becoming a real consideration. Poor roads are also a barrier to people accessing facilities. I ask the ministers to work with their colleagues to examine ways of providing support to local councils, so that they can improve the standard of rural roads.

Railways are another issue. Tourism offers real benefits to my constituency, but its potential is not exploited to the full. Tourism facilities such as New Lanark are not able to access as many visitors as they would like because the rail services simply do not exist. Trains come from Edinburgh and Glasgow and pass through stations in the constituency, but they do not stop. We need to work with the rail companies to ensure that the trains stop, that people can get off and that there are bus services to take people to the attractions that exist. There is a need for co-ordination between the rural affairs department and the development department, so that those links can be provided. By doing that, we would be sending out a positive message about what this Parliament can do on the issue of transport, rather than moaning about what we cannot do and about issues over which we have no power. MPs at Westminster are lobbying on the issue of fuel prices. That is their responsibility.

Finally, I would like to raise the issue of community halls, which are a valuable part of rural life. For many villages, they can be a focus of social inclusion. I welcome the minister's visit to Tarbrax in my constituency, and the money that has been made available to that community to enable it to open a village hall. It will be the focus for rural redevelopment in that area.

I congratulate the minister on the document, but there is a still a great deal to do. However, it provides a positive framework for the way ahead. We should look forward to working together. Sometimes we do not need conflict to be successful; sometimes consensus can be positive. This is a document that will be welcomed in my constituency by the people whom I represent.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 12:11 pm, 25th May 2000

I am pleased to sum up for the Liberal Democrats in this debate. I have been surprised to some extent by the cynical and negative attitude taken both by the SNP and by Alex Johnstone, who led for the Conservatives. I was particularly surprised by the attitude of Alasdair Morgan, which was out of character. The SNP's negative approach was demonstrated by its grudging welcome for a glossy document.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

SNP members say that there is nothing in the document. It seems to me that the sum total of the SNP's rural policy is a signpost to Wigtown.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

That is right.

Alex Johnstone also adopted a very negative approach. Given that he is a dairy farmer, I was surprised that when he was going through the woes of rural Scotland, he never mentioned the appalling disaster of the deregulation of the dairy industry, which happened under the previous Conservative Administration. I contrast his speech and that of Alasdair Morgan with the speech of Robin Harper, who made a positive contribution to the debate.

Without doubt, over the past year, the Scottish Parliament has had many successes and achievements and has taken many initiatives. It has brought government closer to the Scottish people, through the abolition of feudalism, the new Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000—which will help more than 100,000 Scots deal with incapacity in a much more civilised way—and the effective working of our robust committee system. All those initiatives have addressed and are addressing the needs of the Scottish people.

However, the initiative that I welcome most is the decision to put the needs and interests of rural Scotland at the very heart of the Executive's policies and priorities. The creation of a rural affairs department was a major manifesto commitment of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and, with the appointment of Ross Finnie, it has, in just 12 months, proved to be a real success. It is interesting to note that England does not have a rural affairs department.

The title of the document says it all—"Rural Scotland: A New Approach". It is precisely because there are so many problems in our rural areas—associated not just with farming, but with rural transport, rural schools and rural development—that it is important to strike out on a different path from that which has been taken south of the border. Not only do we have a Cabinet minister responsible for rural affairs, but we have a cross-cutting ministerial committee covering all aspects of rural development. It includes ministerial representation from several departments—transport and the environment, communities, health and community care, justice, children and education, and enterprise and lifelong learning. I tell Alex Johnstone that this is what it is about: it is about action, not an old document. It is about action, and change from what happened before.

The focus by the Executive on rural Scotland is, I am glad to say, mirrored in our Parliament through the creation of the Rural Affairs Committee. I have been heartened by the fact that our committee takes a wide view of its remit—wider, I think, than that taken by its convener. Important as they are, farming, fishing and forestry are not the sum total of rural issues. The committee recognises, as do the minister and his department, that jobs, economic development, rural schools and rural shops and services are vital to the well-being of rural Scotland.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

If he is so keen on rural schools, why is he so keen to close them?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I do not have a clue what Mr McGrigor is talking about.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Sit down. I have taken the intervention. Is the member living in cloud-cuckoo-land? The Executive is not closing rural schools.

Focusing on what we can achieve, and what we have achieved, this document is full of case studies that highlight the initiatives that have been taken throughout Scotland to address rural development, from Arran Aromatics, to the child care in rural Scotland development programme, to Wigtown book fair, as was so ably pointed out earlier. There are many other initiatives that have been supported by the Executive, but which could not be included in the document. One is the rural transport initiative in my area of west Aberdeenshire, which is extremely welcome.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The publication of this document is welcomed by the Liberal Democrats. The intention is to set out the Executive's vision for rural Scotland, and to demonstrate how this new approach—and it is a new approach to rural Scotland—will make a difference to all of us who live and work in rural communities. It is about acknowledging and valuing rural Scotland for its distinctiveness. It is about understanding the priorities and needs of rural Scotland, and it is about tackling rural issues and problems in ways that are sensitive to, and appropriate for, our rural areas. We whole-heartedly welcome and support the initiative. Now we certainly have a new approach for rural Scotland.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 12:16 pm, 25th May 2000

It is a pleasure to follow the most negative speech of the morning.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Absolutely.

In declaring an interest in the debate, as a farmer and landowner, I would like to go one step further and declare a lifelong interest, having spent my entire short life as a resident in rural south-west Scotland. Most of that time has been spent in a small village in south Ayrshire. It is a village that is typical of almost any village in rural Scotland.

I moved to that village when I was seven or eight years old. It had a policeman, a schoolmaster, a minister, a garage, a haulage contractor, a forestry office and depot complete with head forester, two shops and two pubs. Not all that many years later, all those people—key people in any community—are gone: no garage, no contractor, no forestry office, only one shop and, despite my lifelong and unstinting devotion to the cause of trying to ensure that both pubs remained viable, only one remains open, because the landlord has alternative employment and therefore an income with which he can subsidise his business.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Not on the subject of my drinking habits. [Laughter.]

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Could the member tell us which Government was in power at the time of that great disaster in rural communities?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Governments of both political colours have been in power during my short life in that village. I am giving the background, which we all know. We were talking about cheap party political points earlier, but that question was the cheapest of the lot.

The scenario that I have painted is surely familiar to all of us who represent rural constituencies in the Parliament. I welcome the commitments and the promises that were made prior to, and have been made since, the establishment of the Parliament, that the interests of rural Scotland would be high on the Executive's priority list. I am on record saying that one of the benefits of the Parliament is that all matters rural now command more parliamentary time than was ever possible before.

I am also on record saying that much of rural Scotland was sceptical about the perceived benefits that the Parliament would bring. I take little pleasure in saying that that scepticism is as great now as it was two years ago. That is little wonder when we consider some of the legislation that has been given the green light by this Administration. First, we had proposals for road tolling and town congestion charges—great ideas to cut down pollution and car use. But who, more than anyone else, has to use those cars to get into town? Those of us who live and work in the country, of course—people who are already bled dry by fuel prices that now verge on £4 a gallon. And just before Mr Rumbles gets up, I will answer the question that I suspect he and Mr Swinney want to ask. When we introduced the fuel tax escalator—yes, we introduced it—we did so at 4 per cent above the rate of inflation, and fuel prices were kept largely in line with fuel prices throughout Europe. It was the present Chancellor of the Exchequer who increased the rate by 50 per cent to 6 per cent; and it was this Government that opened the untenable gap between our prices and other European prices.

The land reform proposals have been hailed as measures to right some usually imagined wrongs that are supposed to have been gnawing at the hearts and minds of every Scot for heaven knows how many years. As so often happens, emotive words and aims that are powerful tools in an election campaign become bogged down in the cold light of day when reality begins to bite.

I much enjoyed and learned a lot from a tour of the north of Scotland with the Rural Affairs Committee, looking at examples of community buy-outs and other management practices. However, if those exercises do not get young people back into those societies, they are a waste of time. I was not convinced by stories that we heard in Assynt and other places, that young people were coming back.

Then there were the proposals on access—in particular, the proposals to allow responsible access to enclosed land. With those proposals, the Executive has stirred up a hornets' nest and it will find it hard to escape.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Does the member accept that the common-law position is that the right to access enclosed land exists, and that the suggested statutory provision simply formalises an ancient right?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

That was an unnecessary intervention, but a fair enough point—which I am just about to address. It is interesting to note that the recently formed Right to Privacy Association has received 1,800 inquiries in less than a fortnight. People are beginning to wake up to the difficulties of policing and controlling a right of responsible access that would be interpreted by many of the less desirable elements in our society as a right to roam and a right to do exactly what they wanted to do. It is no wonder that much of rural Scotland feels under the cosh from the Executive.

It is with a spirit of optimism that we pick up a document that is boldly entitled "Rural Scotland: A New Approach". Our initial reaction is one of approval. It is hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed on the cover:

"Providing opportunity for young people—so they don't have to leave" and

"Integral to Scotland's success, dynamic in harnessing its traditional strengths".

But sadly, throughout the document, we often get the right heading followed by self-righteous detail. On page 48, great play is made of the desire to create 15,000 hectares of native woodland by 2003. That is a good headline. However, although good for conservation, there is little or no commercial value in native and broad-leaf trees, and therefore little add-on value. I agree with Euan Robson that add-on value should be at the heart of the debate and, indeed, at the heart of the economic regeneration of rural Scotland.

The reasoning behind our amendment today is to establish that the single most effective way of kick-starting our rural economy is to add value to the primary products that we produce so well, and to do so by manufacturing them, processing them and marketing them as close to the point of origin as possible.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 12:23 pm, 25th May 2000

This has been an interesting debate, with many useful contributions from around the chamber. The debate has been much more useful than the document that we are debating, which is as empty as the speech that Mike Rumbles delivered.

Expectations of our new Scots Parliament in our rural communities are quite rightly high. Many people already feel that Edinburgh is a million miles closer than London ever was; they feel that our Parliament is much more accessible. However, it is fair to say that many of us are suffering from glossy document fatigue. When I read this latest one, images are conjured up of Ross Finnie playing "Supermarket Sweep", racing around St Andrews House, grabbing off the shelves any product that could be remotely linked to rural Scotland, and shoving it into his rural affairs shopping basket, which he then brings to the chamber to show us the goodies that he has collected—or should I say nicked, given that the Scottish Executive is not paying a penny towards many of the initiatives that the document mentions?

I will refer briefly to our traditional industries, which must be at the heart of the strategy for developing rural Scotland. It is vital that we consider rural affairs as much more than farming and fishing—a genuinely new approach is required. However, we must not forget the traditional industries, which contribute enormously to the economy and which are more than just job providers, because they are woven into the fabric of so many of our rural communities. We must help them to innovate, diversify and manage change, but at all costs we must ensure their survival.

I now refer to the concept of joined-up government and the joint ministerial committee on rural development, which we have heard much about from the minister. Rural affairs is more than fishing and farming—that is where joined-up government must come into play. That is much more than a cliché; it is an important concept. The difficulty is that we do not really know what the joint ministerial committee has been doing, what it has been up to and what it has delivered since it started to meet. It is enigmatic and mysterious.

I suggest that the next time it meets, the joint ministerial committee should invite ministers such as Wendy Alexander to attend; her right-to-buy policies, extended to rural housing associations, have caused fury throughout Scotland. Our rural housing associations had to go to war to try to get her to realise the damage that her policies would cause to the availability of affordable housing in rural communities.

Most of all, the next time that it meets, will the committee please also invite Jack McConnell, the Minister for Finance? Does Jack McConnell have any idea how his local government settlement is affecting rural Scotland? Other members, such as Alex Johnstone, mentioned that point during the debate.

There have, for example, been cuts of £13 million in Aberdeenshire Council's budget. That hampers its ability to help rural communities to develop. Aberdeenshire Council is even cutting two thirds of the number of public toilets. What sort of message does that send out at the beginning of the 21st century?

The truth is that, under this Administration's financial settlement, our rural communities are being rolled back; they are being returned to the dark ages. That is appalling. Many local authorities are being forced to close their local council offices. They cannot provide young people with proper facilities. Perhaps if the minister listens, he will be able to respond to those points later. As many others have mentioned, retaining young people in our rural communities is imperative if those communities are to prosper and survive. However, young people are dying to leave their communities because of a lack of facilities. That issue must be addressed—it is inadequately addressed by "Rural Scotland: A New Approach".

The document also talks about the importance of education, but local authorities are having to cut back on their educational provision. Cathy Peattie mentioned the importance of voluntary groups and the role that they play in rural communities, yet most of their funding comes from local authorities, and that is being cut as well.

The budgets of drug agencies, which play a crucial role in rural Scotland, are being cut as well. Some of them, in rural areas of Aberdeenshire, faced closure recently because of those cuts. There is much in the document about transport, yet we hear that some local authorities are talking about cutting their two-lane highways to single track because they cannot afford to maintain them. Civilisation in rural Scotland has been rolled back under this Administration.

A recent article in The Press and Journal referred to a briefing paper that was published by Robert Gordon University, which

"warned pockets of rural poverty across the region have been ignored in fixing council spending limits. And it highlighted statistics on deprivation, drug-taking, and poor health."

It goes on to say that the conclusions from the report

"apply to rural areas across the North and North-east, in Angus, Tayside, Moray, and Highland."

That is the reality.

It is a pity that the document has been used as yet another delaying and stalling tactic; more shops will close, more banks will close and the heart will be ripped out of many more rural communities while we await a true and genuine response from the Executive to the many problems.

How can we trust the Executive when we look, for example, at page 40 of "Rural Scotland: A New Approach"? Alasdair Morgan referred to this in his opening speech. The Executive says:

"We will invest £1,800 million over the next three years to modernise water industry infrastructure."

What a cheek. How can we trust a word that the document says when the Executive is claiming that it will invest £1.8 billion in the water industry, when it is people living in the north and north-east of Scotland who must foot the bill for that £1.8 billion? The Executive is not contributing a penny from the block, yet it claims in the document that it is contributing £1.8 billion. That is nothing short of lies and we need less of that. We must be much more honest with the rural communities. If we are going to be honest with the rural communities, we must talk about the reserved powers in Westminster and the damage that they are inflicting on our rural communities in Scotland.

Petrol is the biggest issue in rural Scotland right now. That is emphasised at the public meetings that the Rural Affairs Committee has held around Scotland. When committee members ask the people attending those meetings what the biggest issues facing them are, they are told: petrol, petrol, petrol.

We took a straw poll at a public meeting in Dingwall a couple of weeks ago, which was attended by 70 people from around the Highlands and Islands. We asked how many of them had travelled there by public transport: not one hand went up. Every single person who went to that meeting to speak to MSPs had to travel there by private car. That is the reality and the Executive cannot bury its head in the sand.

What does the minister think when people in villages, in the north of Scotland for example, look out of their windows and see the oil rigs sitting on top of the biggest oil reserves in the country, but know that their communities have no transport links and they have to pay the highest price for petrol in the whole of Europe? The strength of the pound is another issue about which the Executive cannot bury its head in the sand, given the damage to rural businesses that is being caused by cheap imports.

Ministers will find it difficult to make a real difference to our rural economy while they have one hand tied behind their back. The SNP amendment is right to point out that Westminster's anti-Scottish policies will continue to undermine the Parliament's efforts to develop the rural economy, just as Jack McConnell's financial settlement undermines the efforts of our local authorities in the many areas that they fund. We want all departments to work together to take into account the needs and aspirations of our rural communities, but we do not need the same old soundbites and more glossy documents. Actions speak louder than words, so let us have more action.

When we last had a rural development debate in the chamber, I said that the biggest challenge facing the Parliament was

"to make the phrase 'rural disadvantage' redundant."—[Official Report, 4 November 1999; Vol 4, c 333.]

The reality is that since the coalition was formed, matters have gone from bad to worse in rural Scotland. Scotland is a rich country and our rural communities must be allowed to have their fair share of that wealth. We need an independent Scotland, as only an independent Scotland will be good for rural Scotland.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 12:31 pm, 25th May 2000

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the debate, not only as the Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs in the rural affairs department, which the Executive established, but as someone who has lived and worked all his life in rural Scotland.

I have almost as much experience as you have, Presiding Officer, of representing rural Scotland in Parliament, so I know that rural Scotland needs a new approach. I strongly believe that the document, "Rural Scotland: A New Approach", and part of this debate have been an important step toward recognising the needs of rural Scotland, understanding the way forward for rural Scotland, and delivering policies that will make a difference to the citizens of rural Scotland. I say part of this debate because, sadly, much of it has been reminiscent of debates to which I have listened in Westminster and the silly, oppositionist style of politics that we tend to have there. Some people are more interested in scoring political points than in addressing the needs of rural Scotland.

Tory members should be aware that history did not start in 1997 or, indeed, in 1999. The problems about which Tory members have been talking have been developing for a long time, including in the period in which their people were in power, so a little bit of humility from them would not go amiss. I gently remind them that the deregulation of public transport did a certain amount of mischief to mobility in rural Scotland.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

There is not time.

Tory members may recall the poll tax—I vividly remember how it affected my constituency. A hill shepherd living about 20 miles from the nearest lamppost had to pay the same regional poll tax as a merchant banker living in the centre of Edinburgh—that was not terribly clever. They acknowledge that the fuel duty escalator was invented some time ago—they have some baggage on that issue. [Interruption.] I am being heckled about lampposts by the member for North Tayside, Mr Swinney.

We have heard some predictable stuff from the nationalists. For these purposes, I will include John Scott among the nationalists because practically everything that he said pointed toward detaching Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom—perhaps he will cross the floor of the chamber. Again we heard the nationalists committing to spending more money—with no indication of where the money would come from—and blaming absolutely everything on Westminster.

Alasdair Morgan is usually a fair guy. At one point in his speech he said that there could be no quick fixes for rural Scotland. So far, so good—he was right about that. However, he spoiled it by suggesting that in one bound, independence would make everything all right for rural Scotland. That is not so and he knows it as well as I do.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I am afraid that Mr Lochhead and others have taken up all my time—we are running over—so I will not give way.

If we expect Alasdair Morgan to be reasonable, we expect Fergus Ewing to be unreasonable—and he did not disappoint today.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I see Margaret Ewing acknowledging that Fergus Ewing can be unreasonable. I remind him gently that the fuel duty escalator has been done away with. The fact that that happened had some connection with representations made from Scotland by Westminster colleagues and colleagues in this Parliament.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I shall move on to the serious part of the debate. The partnership Administration represents rural Scotland, from the northern isles to the Borders, from Dumfries to the western isles, not forgetting the many rural areas in the middle of Scotland as well. We have heard about many of those areas today—Falkirk East, Dumfries, Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, Clydesdale and the Highlands. We have also heard about areas represented by our Liberal Democrat colleagues—Ross, Skye and Inverness West, Roxburgh and Berwickshire and wherever Mike Rumbles comes from. Where is it?

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

How could I possibly forget? It is impossible to reply to all the specific points raised, but I want to pick up two of them.

Cathy Jamieson mentioned the review of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board. I understand its importance in underpinning the wages paid in many rural areas outside the agricultural industry. The situation is under review, but I am not yet in a position to announce anything. I understand her point. Cathy Jamieson may have pointed to one of the problems—I understand that the National Farmers Union of Scotland may have moved its ground, which could complicate the issue.

I rather agree with Karen Gillon's point about the definition of what is and what is not rural. Clydesdale is a rural constituency just as East Lothian largely is. That needs to be taken into account. This Administration understands rural Scotland, which is why we established the rural affairs department. The document demonstrates our commitment to delivering for rural Scotland.

Robin Harper and Christine Grahame raised the serious question of post offices. Members have expressed concern about the future of rural post offices, which is a subject that we have debated twice in the Parliament. I welcome the fact that we have had cast-iron assurances from the Government and the Post Office that cash payments will continue to be available for pensioners and benefit claimants after 2003. There are already developments, with every post office being connected to the Horizon computer system—I recently saw Gifford post office in my constituency being connected.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I do not have time.

We are actively engaged in discussion with our colleagues in the UK Government on the question of the impact of the changes on rural Scotland; we have input into the deliberations of the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office. Anything that the Scottish Executive can do to help the development of business in rural post offices will be done.

The document that we are debating points the way forward for the delivery of the whole range of policies and services in rural Scotland. It states the Executive's determination to have regard to rural considerations across the board—not only in the rural affairs department, but in every department in the Scottish Executive. We are already demonstrating how that delivers benefits in education, transport, enterprise, health, justice, and communities and in understanding the root causes of rural poverty and beginning to tackle them. We are taking such matters very seriously indeed. We have come a long way from the dictatorial days of Michael Forsyth.

The ministerial committee on rural policy is the second example of a new kind of teamwork in government, where every department has contributed to the fresh approach to meeting the needs of rural Scotland. That programme will be taken forward during this Parliament. It is important that that is done because 90 per cent of Scotland's land is rural and 30 per cent of Scottish people live in rural communities. It is a big issue for the Executive and for the Parliament. That is why we want to encourage discussion and participation by rural communities and stakeholders in the debate on "Rural Scotland: A New Approach".

When we reach decision time, members will have a choice between endorsing the Executive motion on this positive document and two amendments. The nationalists, who are more interested in breaking up the United Kingdom than in building up the rural economy, lodged one amendment. The Conservatives lodged the other, rather puzzling, amendment, which seems to ask us to concentrate exclusively on primary industries. We understand the importance of primary industries. That is why Ross Finnie and I are doing so much for fishing, forestry and farming. However, they account for only 15 per cent of the employment in rural Scotland—85 per cent of jobs in rural Scotland are in other industries such as tourism, services and IT. The document points towards the development of those industries. I hope that the Parliament will reject both amendments and will endorse the Executive motion at decision time.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

That concludes the debate.

Before we come to the business motion, I give members notice that I have accepted an emergency question from Mr Jamie McGrigor on the threat to tomorrow's ferry services, to be taken at 3.30 pm. There have been many comments that I have never before accepted an emergency question. This is the first time and it is a good example of an emergency question. I ask members to tell other members during the lunch break that that will take place at 3.30 pm.